WELLSTON • Lamar Oliver got the frantic text message while in class at Normandy High School. It was from a girl who said his younger brother was in big trouble, passed out on the cafeteria floor.
Oliver raced to the lunchroom and found a crowd around his brother’s body. They blew air into his lungs. They kept pumping the boy’s chest.
“I was just looking at him, hoping he would get up,” said Oliver, 17 and a junior at Normandy. “I hoped he would make it through.”
But they couldn’t wake up Marquez Oliver, 15, who collapsed after being punched in the chest by a friend while clowning around, police said.
The sudden death of a freshman who dreamed of a rapping and singing career was apparently triggered by the sophomoric horseplay so common among teenage boys. Paramedics were able to revive Marquez in an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead at St. Louis Children’s Hospital at 6:42 p.m.
“We can’t even believe this,” said his stepmother, Janette Oliver. “He went to school yesterday, and he didn’t come back.”
Marquez had no known medical conditions and was not under a doctor’s supervision. His family said Marquez had a few bouts with asthma years ago and are hoping an autopsy Saturday will explain why he died.
According to Wellston Police Chief G.T. Walker, witnesses told police Marquez took one fist punch and said: “Oh yeah, I can take that. That didn’t hurt,” before collapsing. The boy who punched Marquez is 14. He was taken to the Wellston police station but was later released.
Police have found no evidence of bullying or assault. Walker said it appears Marquez’s death was an accident resulting from horseplay that carried over from Wednesday when Marquez punched his friend. The younger boy told Marquez, “I’ll get you.” And they both laughed it off, Walker said.
“It was a game, and they would run up and one would punch the other one in the chest and run off,” Walker said.
Police plan to present the case to juvenile authorities who will decide whether to file criminal charges.
CAUSE OF DEATH UNCLEAR
While the cause of death has not yet been determined, Dr. Saadeh Al-Jureidini, director of cardiac catheterization at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, suspects it was caused by unlucky timing of the blow rather than the force of it. He points to a rare cardiac event called commotio cordis, which occurs when the heart receives a blow during a 30-millisecond window of the cardiac cycle, short-circuiting its electricity.
It’s most commonly seen in baseball players who’ve been struck in the chest by a ball, Al-Jureidini said. Scientists have studied it in pigs but still don’t fully understand it. Such incidents seem to be related to the T wave, part of the heartbeat and one of the waves measured by an electrocardiogram.
“The T wave is very poorly understood,” Al-Jureidini said. “It appears that the heart becomes vulnerable electrically, and animal studies have suggested that if you time the blow to the chest on the upstroke of the T wave then ventricular fibrillation will occur and results in sudden death.”
Other causes, he added, could be a congenital heart defect that went undetected, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a thickening of myocardium, or a coronary artery abnormality, in which the main arteries going into and out of the heart are crisscrossed. But sudden death from those conditions usually happen during exercise, he said.
Grief counselors were at the high school in Wellston on Friday.
Phillip Boyd, chief administrative officer for the Normandy School District, broke down in tears twice Friday while briefing reporters on the incident.
“We understand that the words are really inadequate right now, but we feel for the loss,” Boyd said. “We want (the family) to know they’re in our prayers.”
Janette Oliver said Marquez and the boy who hit him had known each other a few years and played together all the time.
Students mourning their classmate on social media Friday said they thought the boy who struck him didn’t mean any harm. One young man posting a message said his brother was the one who struck Marquez and is reeling with guilt.
Janette Oliver said Marquez enjoyed spending time with friends and listening to music. He wanted to be a rapper and an R&B singer. “He was 15 and had big dreams,” she said.
Marquez had posted videos of himself singing and dancing to YouTube, and was building a recording studio in the basement of his father’s home in Normandy.
Visitation for Marquez will be 9 to 11 a.m. Friday at Layne Renaissance Chapel, 7302 West Florissant Avenue in St. Louis. Service will follow at the chapel. Burial will be after the service at St. Peters Cemetery, 2101 Lucas & Hunt Road in Normandy. Marquez had five siblings.
Cynthia Billhartz-Gregorian and Elisa Crouch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.